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Did Mexican cardinal know of abuse claims against priest?

WASHINGTON — A police report obtained through an unusual deposition of Mexico's most influential Roman Catholic clergyman casts doubt on his claim that he didn't know that a priest he'd transferred to Los Angeles was suspected of pedophilia. The priest later fled Southern California after he was charged with sexually abusing eight boys.

Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera has testified that he didn't know that the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar was suspected of sexually abusing children when he wrote a letter of introduction for him on Jan. 27, 1987, to Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who was then an archbishop.

But a 1986 police report found in a file at the offices of the diocese of Tehuacan, Mexico, where Rivera was bishop at the time, detailed allegations that children had been sleeping at the priest's home. The report was part of an investigation into Aguilar's brutal beating, possibly at the hands of a mob, a few days earlier.

Aguilar served in Los Angeles for less than a year before he fled to Mexico in January 1988 to escape what ultimately became 19 felony counts of sexual abuse of a child. He's never been tried on the charges and his whereabouts are unknown.

The police report was among the documents filed last week in a California Superior Court in connection with a lawsuit that accuses Mahony and Rivera, two of the world's most influential Catholic figures, of conspiring to cover up Aguilar's actions in both countries. The lawsuit is one of roughly 500 cases against the Los Angeles archdiocese alleging abuse by priests. The archdiocese agreed in December to pay $60 million to accusers in 45 cases.

In a court filing last March, Rivera, whose Mexico City archdiocese is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, said he was unaware that Aguilar had exhibited predatory behavior toward children, though he did know that the priest was suspected of homosexuality with other adults. Rivera said he'd signaled Mahony that Aguilar had problems through coded language in the letter of introduction.

Mahony, who heads the largest archdiocese in the United States, acknowledged receiving the letter but said he didn't understand that it was coded. He said he never received a subsequent letter from Rivera detailing allegations of homosexuality.

U.S. lawyers went to Mexico City last month to question Rivera, the first time that such a high-ranking Mexican clergyman has submitted to court questioning in a sexual abuse case. There, they received a copy of the police report from files in Tehuacan.

The Aug. 8, 1986, report detailed complaints from parents that Aguilar had boys sleeping with him in the parish.

Rivera's lawyer, Bernardo Fernandez del Castillo, said in a telephone interview from Mexico City that the cardinal had never seen the police report. "Cardinal Rivera did not know of the existence of this document," he said.

Michael Finnegan, a lawyer with Jeff Anderson & Associates, a law firm in St. Paul, Minn., that's brought numerous civil suits against the Catholic Church for child sexual abuse, charged that the timing of the police report and Aguilar's departure to Los Angeles soon afterward indicated that Rivera knew the nature of the suspicions about the priest.

"There is no way that a bishop, especially a bishop as powerful as him (Rivera) in Tehuacan, would not know that. They moved him right after that" beating, Finnegan said.

After Rivera sent his letter of introduction to Mahony warning of "family and health" reasons for Aguilar's transfer — words that the Mexico cardinal said were code for "problems" — he sent a confidential follow-up letter on March 23, 1987, telling Mahony that Aguilar had been bludgeoned amid accusations of homosexuality.

In that letter, Rivera made no mention of the police report but said "it is suspected that behind the conflicts that provoked this physical aggression there are problems of homosexuality." Mahony denies having received the letter.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Joaquin Aguilar Mendez, who isn't related to Aguilar, claims that the priest raped him in 1994 in Mexico City, where Aguilar was serving despite accusations of child sex abuse in the Los Angeles area and in Tehuacan. After Aguilar Mendez came forward in 1994, the priest was transferred back to Tehuacan, where he served as a priest until at least the late 1990s before disappearing.

Today, police in Mexico and Rivera's attorneys say they know nothing of Aguilar's whereabouts. He'll turn 66 next Monday.

The California Superior Court has yet to consider the merits of the civil lawsuit, focusing first on the question of jurisdiction. Mahony and Los Angeles Bishop Thomas Curry, who handled correspondence in 1988 between Mahony and Rivera, are scheduled to give depositions on Sept. 13.

Rivera's attorneys argue that since Rivera, Aguilar and Aguilar Menendez are all Mexican and the alleged crime against Aguilar Mendez happened in Mexico, U.S. courts have no jurisdiction to include the Mexican cardinal as a defendant.

The U.S. lawyers who are bringing the civil suit allege that church leaders in both countries helped Aguilar escape justice in Los Angeles.

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